Monday, July 24, 2017

Wind River by James Reasoner and L.J. Washburn

Where the railroad ends, trouble begins
When I travel to Wyoming I like to read a Wyoming novel. This year I decided to give James Reasoner and L.J. Washburn’s 1994 book Wind River a try. The story takes place in the fictional town of Wind River, which is confusingly described as being about 80 miles west of Laramie. That would put it more likely on the North Platte than the Wind River and closer to the Snowy Range than the Wind River Range, though the novel often mentions the latter as being visible from the town.

Anyway, when the story opens, the young town of Wind River has just become the western terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad. Railroad construction has brought some undesirable characters with it, from rough-and-tumble track workers to shiftless drifters or “hardcases” with seemingly no other purpose than to cause trouble. Violent clashes between these two groups have drawn attention to the need for law and order in the town. With work on the tracks recently completed, the citizens of Wind River gather to celebrate the arrival of the first locomotive. A fistfight breaks out among the crowd, and one of the town’s eminent founders is killed by a stray gunshot. Present at the incident is Cole Tyler, who has been hunting buffalo in the region, providing meat for the railroad workers. When the trouble goes down at the train station, he demonstrates a level head, a quick draw, and a commanding presence that demands respect. Tyler is invited to serve as the town’s first marshal, and he reluctantly accepts. He soon finds himself not only keeping the peace in this frontier town, but also working to solve a murder.

I’m not a habitual reader of westerns but I am an avid fan of western films. Wind River reads as if it were written with hopes of a movie adaptation. Each scene and character is familiar, like those you’ve seen in countless westerns on the silver screen, yet Reasoner and Washburn skillfully manipulate the players in this drama to keep the story from being bogged down in western clichés. The introduction of each new character is intriguing, as each has their own personal mysteries that keep the reader engaged. Since this is a town western rather than a range western, you not only get cowboys and cattle rustlers but an entire ensemble cast of characters including the doctor, the newspaper editor, the blacksmith, and the woman who runs the local cafe. This opens up a lot of narrative possibilities and provides a broader picture of western life than a simple good vs. evil shoot-’em-up, though it’s still a romanticized depiction of the West.

As the book goes on, Wind River becomes less like a movie and more like a TV series, along the lines of Gunsmoke or Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman. As the mystery reaches its resolution and the bad guys are revealed, the story lines become more predictable, and the action starts to feel safe. It becomes apparent that this will be the first novel in a Wind River series, and once the reader figures that out then it’s obvious that none of the important characters will die, since they all have to return for the next installment. As the stakes become lower, the novel becomes less exciting, and one can expect the ending to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

Still, Wind River is better than a lot of western literature I’ve read. Like the TV series mentioned above, it’s easy to get involved with these characters. Though I generally prefer my western tales darker and grittier, I might pick up the next Wind River book the next time I go to Wyoming.
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Friday, July 21, 2017

Dune by Frank Herbert

Not just a sci-fi masterpiece but a masterpiece, period.
I know a lot of Star Wars nuts, Harry Potter nuts, and Lord of the Rings nuts, but I was always a Dune nut. I first read Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel as a teenager in the ‘80s, and I recently had the pleasure of reading it again for the fourth or fifth time. Like the works mentioned above, much of the attraction of Dune comes from the intricately detailed world in which it is set. In fact, I have never read another single-volume work that creates a more fully realized fictional universe. Herbert has exquisitely conceived this world in multiple dimensions: political, religious, cultural, ecological, historical, and linguistic, to name a few. Dune is more than just a pretty backdrop, however, as the wonderful world Herbert has created sets the stage for an equally epic story.

Through a diplomatic agreement, House Atreides, one of many noble families in an interplanetary feudalistic society, have been assigned and/or sentenced by the Emperor to relocate to the desert planet Arrakis, nicknamed Dune. There they will take over the management of the planet’s priceless natural resource, a spice named melange that acts as a prescience-enhancing drug. The Atreides fear the move to Arrakis may be a trap set by the Emperor in collusion with their rivals the Harkonnens. Paul Atreides, the son of the Duke, is the end result of an extensive breeding program for genetic excellence. As he reaches manhood, he begins to show signs of superhuman mental abilities. The Fremen, desert people indigenous to Arrakis, have foretold the coming of a messiah, and Paul just might be it.

Though an excellent novel, Dune is not an easy read. There is a great deal of foreshadowing to upcoming events, as well as flashbacks and references to fictional history, to the point where the lines between past, present, and future are often blurred, much like the time-spanning visions of the book’s hero. The effect can be disorienting. In addition, Herbert has crafted a unique vocabulary for Dune, enough to fill over 20 pages of appendix. While labor intensive, all these thoughtful details enhance the authenticity of the world in which the reader is immersed.

What’s never mentioned explicitly in the text (though alluded to in the appendices) is that the story takes place tens of thousands of years in our future. The characters are descendants of the human diaspora that emigrated from Earth to colonize other worlds. This is evident from the religious and linguistic artifacts that have persisted over millennia. The Fremen, for example, exhibit cultural traits that are Arabic and Islamic in origin, though mingled with elements of Christianity and Buddhism. Over 10,000 years prior to the story of Dune, a cataclysmic war between man and machine took place, known as the Butlerian Jihad. As a result, computers and robots are absent from the world of Dune. Instead, humans have developed their physical and mental abilities to the utmost through rigorous training, eugenics, and drugs. Mentats, for example, specialize as human computers, while Paul and his mother, among others, are trained in the “weirding way,” a sort of martial art combined with hypnotic suggestion.

If any of this sounds familiar from Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and so on, just remember that Dune was here first. There are very few works of science fiction created since 1965 that don’t to some degree owe a debt of gratitude to Herbert’s masterpiece. Dune is often cited as the greatest sci-fi novel ever published, and rightfully so, in my opinion. Frank Herbert would go on to add five sequels to the Dune canon before he died, and his son and other writers have published numerous ancillary works set in the Dune universe. The first is still the best, however. If you’ve never before dabbled in the Dune world, treat yourself to a fascinating and engrossing literary experience. If you’ve read it before, by all means read it again.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton

Slowhand, warts and all
I’m a lifelong Eric Clapton fan, though I can’t say I like everything he puts out. I am familiar with all stages of his musical career, but prior to reading his 2007 autobiography entitled Clapton I knew very little about his personal life other than disjointed anecdotes here and there. In this book, the guitarist extraordinaire offers a candid look back at his roller coaster life. Overall, it’s a pretty satisfying tour through about a half century of rock and roll history. I may not always have enjoyed the ride that Clapton took me on, but I was always thoroughly engaged by it.

Perhaps the defining moment in Clapton’s life is his much-discussed romance with George Harrison’s wife Patti Boyd, the inspiration for the Layla album and other songs in Clapton’s body of work. That particular episode proves not to be quite as romantic as the music that was composed around it. Here Clapton admits that as soon as he won Boyd’s love he began cheating on her. In fact, Clapton treats a lot of women like dirt in this book, and delves pretty deeply into the psychological hows and whys of it all. To his credit, however, unlike Pete Townshend in his autobiography Who I Am, Clapton doesn’t ask you to forgive him, beg you to like him, or expect you to admire his exploits. He simply relates everything in a matter-of-fact way, as if to say these are some bad things I’ve done, and there’s nothing I can do about them now.

Clapton is equally candid about his substance abuse, and his story of recovery is inspiring. One can’t help but admire the way he eventually turned his life around. Yet the book is frustrating because for most of its length he is still very much an emotional child. He doesn’t really get his act together until his mid-50s, when he marries a woman 30 years his junior. At that point you’re happy for him, but the book also starts to get boring as Clapton becomes your grandpa, talking about “computer culture” (owning a laptop), shopping for shoes in Japan, and the necessity of taking a nap every afternoon.

As revealing and cathartic as all the talk about his drug use and alcoholism may be, the reader is left wishing Clapton had devoted more ink to his music. He covers Blind Faith, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos pretty well, but glosses over much of his solo career. He left the Yardbirds because their music was too poppy and not true to the blues, but he doesn’t feel the need to justify his later forays into easy listening, smooth jazz, and Luther Vandross-style R&B. Some of his greatest albums, like Slowhand, he dismisses as sloppy, drunken playing. His own personal favorite is Pilgrim, an album which critics frequently cite as one of his all-time worst.

A really good rock and roll biography will make me want to go back and dig out that artist’s old albums, thereby reliving some of his or her glory days. This book didn’t do that for me. As much as I love his guitar playing, I’d have to say my respect for the man diminished a bit after reading his life story. Not only were some of his moral choices off-putting, but he just doesn’t come across as intelligent as you might expect a virtuoso musician to be. I’m not here to criticize Clapton’s life, however, but rather to review his book. There’s no denying that Clapton the book is well written and covers a lot of what you’d want to know about the man. It isn’t always fun or exciting, but it’s consistently informative, surprisingly candid, and provides a great deal of insight into the man behind the music.
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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Stories by English Authors: Italy by James Payn, et al.

Manages to make Rome, Venice, and Florence seem dull
Laurence Oliphant
This book of short stories is one of ten volumes in the Stories by English Authors series that was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. The five stories included here all take place in Italy, hence the subtitle of this particular volume. In Western civilizations, Italy was traditionally viewed as the world’s wellspring of art, literature, and culture, at least until the late 19th century when it may have been supplanted or at least matched by Paris. Anyone with money or artistic talent was expected to make a pilgrimage to Rome, Florence, and Venice at some point in their lives, and the characters of these stories are no exception. These five works of short fiction are all tales of Brits in Italy. If you’re a lover of Italy yourself you’re unlikely to find much satisfaction here. These stories give very little insight into Italy’s ambience or culture, and are for the most part rather annoying in their concentration on rich people’s petty problems. The characters show little affinity for the country in which they happen to be traveling. Through their eyes it is merely a box on their bucket lists that needs to be checked off.

The book opens with “A Faithful Retainer” by James Payn, in which a rich young Englishman is sent to Italy to get over his gambling vice. This is a boring and predictable piece, with a very thin plot dressed up with weak humor. “Bianca” by W. E. Norris is about a Brit in Venice who’s friendship with an Austrian officer obligates him to assist in the fellow’s elopement with an Italian mistress. In A. Mary F. Robinson’s “Goneril” we find a young woman with the unfortunate name of Gonerilla enjoying an extended sojourn in Florence, where she makes the acquaintance of an older gentleman who takes an interest in her. These first three offerings are all rather formulaic and dull. Italy merely serves as a backdrop for stories that could just as well have been told in England, and in fact have been told many times before by other and better authors.

The best entry in the book, and that’s not saying much, is “The Brigand’s Bride” by Laurence Oliphant. It’s about an English adventurer who goes to Italy seeking excitement and gets involved in the country’s ongoing civil war. He winds up falling in love with the wife of the leader of one of the bandit gangs he’s been commissioned to suppress. This is an amusing romantic tale, but a little slow in pace and longer than it needs to be.

Even Anthony Trollope can’t save this collection. His “Mrs. General Talboys” concerns an Englishwoman who travels to Rome with her daughter, leaving her husband behind. Though she is faithful to her spouse, to others she is vocal in her advocacy of freedom from the conventions of matrimony, an attitude that inadvertently wins her a suitor. The piece is well drawn by Trollope, but he treats his own heroine with such mean-spiritedness you never really care about the characters, and the overall effect is unpleasant.

This is the ninth volume I have read in the Stories by English Authors series, and this book on Italy can rightfully vie with the one on Ireland for worst volume in the series. The only story worth reading is Oliphant’s, and I can only give that one a halfhearted endorsement. In general the series has been a rather lackluster showcase of late 19th-century British fiction, but two volumes, one on Africa and the other on Germany and Northern Europe, are pretty good and worth a look.

Stories in this collection
A Faithful Retainer by James Payn 
Bianca by W. E. Norris 
Goneril by A. Mary F. Robinson 
The Brigand’s Bride: A Tale of Southern Italy by Laurence Oliphant 
Mrs. General Talboys by Anthony Trollope

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Experimental Novel and Other Essays by Emile Zola

The naturalist manifestoes
Emile Zola, by Manet
The Experimental Novel and Other Essays is a collection of French author Emile Zola’s nonfiction writings on literature. It was originally published in 1880, followed by the English translation by Belle M. Sherman published in America in 1893. In a brief introduction, Zola explains that the five lengthiest essays in the book were originally published in Russia, because no literary journal in Paris would accept them. The remaining assortment of seven-to-nine-page pieces, grouped under the headings of “The Novel” and “Criticism,” first ran in the French journals Le Bien Public and Le Voltaire.

Though many consider Zola the father of the naturalist school of literature, in these essays he vehemently shuns such a label, claiming that naturalism is not a school but a method or tendency that has been present throughout the history of literature, even as far back as ancient times. In the 19th century naturalism was overshadowed by romanticism, and Zola merely sees himself as a vocal advocate for its resurgence in the modern era. He repeatedly credits Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert with pioneering the naturalist renaissance in French literature, although each sometimes waxed romantic in their turn. Even if Zola isn’t the founder of naturalism, he is clearly its most strident proponent and purist. In the opening essay, “The Experimental Novel,” he likens the writing of a novel to the practicing of medicine and draws upon a medical text from Claude Bernard to back up his argument. For Zola, what separates naturalism from other literary movements is its devotion to science. This manifests itself in the sense of reality established by the author and the refusal to deviate from natural laws for the convenience of telling a story. Man is not an actor on a stage, but an organism subject to environmental and evolutionary forces. “Determinism dominates everything,” asserts Zola.

In addition to pushing his naturalist agenda, Zola also champions the novel as an art form, asserting that it is the literary medium that best speaks to the modern world and its scientific concerns. He avows that the novel’s capacity for realism will eventually win out over the favored vehicles of romanticism: poetry and drama. From today’s perspective, his prediction certainly seems to have come true. He nevertheless hopes that realism will also someday come to inhabit the stage, which certainly did happen in the early 20th century. One might argue that naturalism also triumphed on the silver screen. At the time Zola was writing these essays, however, naturalism was a dirty word, and he its staunchest defender, a freedom fighter liberating literature from the yoke of romanticism.

In the five longer essays, which run about 50 pages each, Zola can get a bit long-winded and repetitive in his arguments, as if he’s writing to fill a word count. Because of the very nature of the collection, which brings articles from different times and venues into one volume, naturally some themes are brought up again and again. Several of the shorter pieces consist of Zola merely railing against a critic who has insulted Balzac. Nevertheless, for anyone who is an enthusiast of Zola’s novels or has an interest in literary naturalism in general, this book provides invaluable insight into Zola’s thought process as a writer and his personal philosophy of art. Such readers will also be interested in a similar volume by America’s foremost Zola disciple, Frank Norris, entitled The Responsibilities of the Novelist. Both books are essential texts in the naturalist canon and fascinating reading for those with a love for this school of literature.
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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich

The romance of revolution
The Gadfly, published in 1897, is a novel by Irish author Ethel Lilian Voynich. The story takes place in Italy during the 1840s, in the period known as the Risorgimento, when Italy was under occupation by Austria. Despite its author and subject matter, the book was never a big hit in Ireland or Italy, but because of its leftist revolutionary themes it enjoyed an immense popularity and sold millions of copies in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

The novel opens at a theological seminary in Pisa, where English student Arthur Burton is studying with his mentor, Padre Montanelli. The teacher considers the young man one of his finest pupils, and the two enjoy a close relationship. Their peaceful monastic existence is shattered, however, when Arthur confesses to the padre that he wants to abandon his studies in order to fight for the Italian resistance against Austria. From that point forward, the plot of The Gadfly is difficult to summarize without spoiling, though most of the “surprises” are foreshadowed by Voynich far in advance. The plot eventually moves to Florence to focus on the subversive activities of an underground cell of political agitators plotting the revolution.

The Gadfly, to which the title refers, is the pen name of a writer for the revolutionary cause. This mysterious adventurer from South America pens propaganda in the form of scathing satire. As in The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Pimpernel, or The Mark of Zorro, the secret identity of the Gadfly is painfully obvious from the start. It’s hard to believe that Voynich would really think her audience couldn’t see the truth, yet throughout the book she treats this detail as if it were a secret. The exasperated reader waits for the other characters in the book to discover what he or she has already long known. The result is that those characters come across as not very smart, like Lois Lane and company not realizing that Superman is Clark Kent with glasses.

The Gadfly often reads like a manual for how revolutionaries should conduct themselves, which probably explains its popularity during periods of radical unrest. The character of the Gadfly serves as an example of how to respond irreverently to torture, how to scoff intelligently at the church, how to nobly undertake suicide missions for the cause, and so on. The tone of the book has a romantic pomposity that resembles a propaganda poster from a Communist regime. There is another side to Romanticism, however, that doesn’t really work with this subject matter. Despite the Gadfly’s strident and steadfast devotion to the cause, he is also hopelessly histrionic in his emotional outbursts. While fighting for the cause of a nation, he spends an awful lot of time crying over his personal problems. The climax of the book is a ridiculously overwrought tearjerker, like the overly protracted death scene of an annoyingly melodramatic opera. Also, though the Gadfly spouts plenty of potent anti-church rhetoric and atheist invective, the book is loaded with so much Christian imagery it’s difficult to figure out which side of that argument Voynich is really on. By making the Gadfly a Christ figure, aren’t you simultaneously glorifying Christ?

I love a good freedom fighter story as much as anyone, but this one could have used less romance and more realism. Still, it is an interesting piece of radical fiction, and if nothing else the overly theatrical bits lend a bit of Victorian Era kitsch value. Though millions of Russians may differ with me, The Gadfly is no masterpiece, but it’s an OK read for left-leaning readers who are into this sort of thing.
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Friday, June 23, 2017

Hania by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Assorted selections from the master’s sketchbook
Hania is the title of an 1876 novella by Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz. It is also the name of a collection of short fiction by Sienkiewicz published in English in 1897. As is usually the case with Sienkiewicz’s works, the ten short stories included in the collection were translated by Jeremiah Curtin. The selections are a mixed bag featuring subject matter that readers of Sienkiewicz’s better-known novels will find familiar. In fact, in some cases the pieces included here served as preliminary sketches for the author’s greatest novels.

The title selection, “Hania,” is an autobiographical story, although likely embellished with Sienkiewicz’s Romantic flair. When an old family servant dies, Sienkiewicz assumes responsibility for the man’s granddaughter by welcoming her as a sister into the family. As time goes on, however, his feelings for her become more than brotherly. This story starts out as a very interesting glimpse into the privileges and obligations of a Polish nobleman. As the plot progresses, however, Sienkiewicz’s picture of himself becomes more unflattering as he behaves in stupid and petty ways. The story ends on an unsatisfying note of blunt realism uncharacteristic of the author.

A more successful effort is “Tartar Captivity,” a violent piece of historical fiction about a 17th-century impoverished noble who goes off to fight the Tartars in the Ukraine. This piece is a worthy precursor to Sienkiewicz’s famous trilogy of With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Michael. Another good selection is the short story “The Organist of Ponikla” which eschews historical grandeur in favor of a more personal, intimate focus. “Lux in Tenebris Lucet” is another pretty good offering with a solemn atmosphere and poignant plot, but it settles for a rather easy religious ending. The volume closes with “That Third Woman,” an enjoyable comic piece about an artist who finds fame and fortune overnight, and the effect his newfound notoriety has on his love life.

The less successful entries include “Let Us Follow Him,” a rather dull retelling of the crucifixion of Christ that can be seen as a preliminary work to Sienkiewicz’s religious opus Quo Vadis. “Be Thou Blessed” is a blessedly brief Hindu fable that gratifies the Romantic’s taste for the exotic. “At the Source” and “On the Bright Shore” are both dreary romances which annoy with their unlikable characters and overdramatic touches. Lastly, in “Charcoal Sketches,” a municipal functionary schemes to force a rival into military conscription in order to make advances to the man’s wife. Though Sienkiewicz tries to be funny by satirizing corruption at various levels of government, the broad humor never gels with the unpleasant events, and the whole thing just comes across as mean-spirited and overdone.

Though the tone of these works varies from dreary fatalism to lighthearted comedy, Sienkiewicz’s devotion to Romanticism is evident throughout, sometimes to the point of detriment to the stories he’s telling. This is a long book, and over its course you start to feel bogged down with the pomposity of classical literary references, tortured artists, and inflexible codes of honor. When he starts to make fun of such pretensions in “That Third Woman,” it’s quite a relief, but that’s the last stop on an exhausting trip. Overall, there’s no denying that these short pieces are not as strong as Sienkiewicz’s long-form masterpieces. Only the most diehard of Sienkiewicz fans, seeking to consume his complete works, need bother with this collection.

Stories in this collection
Hania (includes a Prologue to Hania: The Old Servant) 
Tartar Captivity 
Let Us Follow Him
Be Thou Blessed 
At the Source 
Charcoal Sketches 
The Organist of Ponikla
Lux in Tenebris Lucet 
On the Bright Shore 
That Third Woman

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